Prima Facie

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A Woman's Hand (PFCD172) £12.50

Selected piano works by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
Performed by Helen Cawthorne

1. Allegro molto, C minor (1846)
2. without tempo indication, G minor (1844)
3. Allegro molto, E minor (1844)
4. Allegretto grazioso, Bb major (1836)
5. Andante, G major, op.2 no.1 (1836)
6. Prestissimo, C major (1836)
7. Adagio, Eb major (1843) (no. 10 from '12 Klavierstücke für Felix')
8. (op.8 no.1) Allegro moderato, B minor (1846)
9. (op.8 no.2) Andante con espressione, A minor (1846)
10. (op.8 no.3) Lied. Larghetto, Db major (1846)
11. (op.8 no.4) Wanderlied. Presto, E major (1846)
12. (op.5 no.4) Lento appassionato, B major (1846)
13. (op.5 no.5) Allegro molto vivace, G major (1840)
14. (op.5 no.6) Andante soave, Eb major (1840)
15. Allegretto ma non troppo, E minor (1843)
16. Allegro moderato, B major (1837)
17. Andante con moto, E major (1838)

A Woman's Hand CD

"This is an immensely satisfying performance. It is a voyage of delight from end to end. The superb recording complements the playing in every way." John France, MusicWeb International

There has been an upsurge of interest over recent years in Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s life and work, prompted both by her bi-centenary in 2005 and a more general impulse to re-examine undervalued and neglected female artists. Those who have been exposed to even a fraction of her work may need no further encouragement to explore this new and relatively rare recording of a generous selection of her shorter piano works. But if her music is unfamiliar territory, the experience might prove a surprising and exceptionally rewarding discovery; don’t be inclined to expect sentimental, pretty drawing-room stuff!

Fanny was subject, of course, to the familiar prejudices of her age. The title of this disc is a reference to the back-handed compliment of a contemporary critic who opined that her compositions 'did not betray a woman’s hand' but displayed, rather, 'a masculine seriousness'. However, her case is not a simple matter of gender prejudice. The limitations placed on Fanny’s musical life were as much, if not more, due to her elevated social position. As the daughter of a prominent and wealthy banking family, whose grand Berlin home was a prestigious cultural and intellectual centre, it was considered unthinkable that she should pursue a professional musical life of any kind, either as a pianist or as a composer. At the same time, it was that very background of intellectual vigour and sophisticated cultural influence that shaped an exceptional musical talent. Fanny’s closeness to her brother Felix and the demanding academic and musical training that they shared from a young age has been well documented, as has the acknowledgement that Fanny was an exceptionally accomplished pianist, equal or even superior to her brother.

There could be some poignancy, perhaps, in listening to the compositions of a pianist whose public career was restrained by social conventions. And it might be tempting to imagine piano ‘miniatures’ as somehow symbolic of these constraints. On the contrary, however, these works are bursting with a self-assurance grounded in virtuosic command of her instrument and a thorough schooling in compositional techniques. Hers is a distinctive voice (inescapably, a singing voice), working in a limited compass, perhaps, but embracing huge variety, from passion and tumult to utter serenity.

You can read the sleeve notes from this CD on the Prima Facie blog, Recitative.

Helen Cawthorne

Helen Cawthorne
Helen Cawthorne studied with the German pianist Annekäte Friedlander before entering the Royal Academy of Music, where she was awarded major prizes as a solo pianist, accompanist and chamber musician. Her subsequent career has reflected this diversity, and a special interest in working with singers and string players in the Romantic repertoire has been complemented by premières of over thirty newly commissioned works. Wigmore Hall and Purcell Room débuts came early in her career and she has returned many times to the Southbank Centre, most recently with the eight-hand piano ensemble Piano40, in their tenth appearance at the venue. Helen teaches piano and chamber music at the Junior Academy of the RAM and is a Lecturer in Performance at the University of Southampton.